Choosing A College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell

Chapter9: Weeding Out


Weeding Out
Financial Weeding


Every step leading up to college applications is essentially a weeding out process. When you take the S.A.T. or A.C.T. and get your own test scores back, these alone may eliminate hundreds-or even thousands-of colleges above or below your academic range. To continue this process you need to develop your own list of requirements, preferences, aversions, as well as a sense of your own strengths, blind spots, and areas you want to work on. Most people will get more insight through talking all this over with other people, even if those other people have no concrete information or suggestions to offer on specific colleges. As you have repeated talks with parents, teachers, friends of the family, high school counselors, and others, it may become clearer that certain kinds of colleges would be very desirable for you and certain other kinds very undesirable, whether for academic, social, or personal reasons.

Perhaps you don't want to be too far from home-or perhaps you need to put a lot of distance between you and home, to develop independence and find your own way. Maybe the money situation will determine what is practical and what is not. The kinds of people who go to some colleges may make these particular institutions especially attractive-or out of the question. Sometimes you will know people who have gone to specific colleges and who can give you first-hand information and impressions.

This exploratory phase should start no later than your junior year of high school, when there is plenty of time to talk things over with many people, without having to reach any conclusion or commit yourself. If you change your mind several times along the way, and re-arrange your priorities, that probably means you are discovering things you wouldn't have thought of at first, so the whole process is proving to be worthwhile. Nothing is worse than getting a fixed idea and sticking to it stubbornly, in spite of anything, just for the feeling of being decisive. That way you can paint yourself into a corner. Listening does not mean obeying. It means finding out. You can learn some important things even from someone whose conclusions you reject.

Only after you have gotten some general ideas from your test scores, from conversations with family and friends, and from reading a little in college guides, should you seek the advice of a "professional," such as a teacher or counselor. You will be able to ask better questions, carry on a dialogue-and not become someone being blindly led. You may also be better able to form some idea of the counselor's own knowledge and depth of understanding. If you have been fortunate enough to find someone who understands colleges and understands you, you may be able to strike a number of schools off your list immediately, add some you hadn't thought of, and know what to look for when thinking about some others.

It is important to avoid letting anyone become your one and only guru from the outset-especially if that seems to be a role they relish. You need a "second opinion"-and a third opinion, and fourth opinion, if you can get them. There may be quite a few worthwhile opinions available, if you stop and think about possible sources. Relatives, family friends, teachers, and others who have gone to college may be worth having some conversations with, even if they have no specific suggestions. Sometimes even people who have never been to any college may have some useful input if they know you well. If your mother never went to college, she probably can't tell you whether Johns Hopkins is better than Cornell, but she may be able to tell you things about yourself that may make it easier for you to determine whether Johns Hopkins or Cornell is better for you. As things begin to sort themselves out in your mind-as you begin to decide what kinds of institutions you would like, what kind of environment you want, what you can realistically afford-then it will be time to look more closely at particular places to determine how well they approximate what you are looking for. At that point, you need to look more closely at various kinds of literature and, if possible, at the campuses themselves.


Nothing is easier than getting brochures from colleges and you may be inundated with them if you get on some mailing list. These brochures are often gems of the advertising art and as seductive as your favorite heart- throb. Photographs of beautiful campus scenes are usually interspersed with photos of students and their professors in warm, soulful communion, often accompanied by pithy quotes about how wonderful it is to be at Ivy University or Podunk A&M. On the surface, they all seem alike, and yet a careful reading of brochures-and still more so, of catalogues-can reveal important differences.

College brochures, in addition to pretty pictures and glowing generalities about commitment to education and high ideals, also contain some useful factual information. Some tell you what percentage of applicants are admitted from various S.A.T. score levels. Some tell you what percentage of students from various income levels receive financial aid. Some tell you what percentage of their graduates who apply to medical school or law school are admitted. They are especially likely to give you such statistics if they are favorable. When 90 percent of Carleton College's graduates who apply to medical school are accepted (and an even higher percentge to law school), they are not likely to keep that secret. When a college has been praised in various guides and surveys, that fact also tends to find its way into their brochures. But when a college brochure consists of nothing but fine photographs and glowing words, that should raise a question as to why there isn't any hard news. A red marking pen is useful for outlining a few key facts scattered here and there among the lofty and smarmy rhetoric. When you find a brochure with nothing to outline, that tells you something. The brochure for Franklin & Marshall College gives the high national rankings of various departments of theirs. Even without explicit rankings of colleges or departments, however, it is often possible to get some idea of their quality from their students' acceptance rates into medical schools and law schools, or into "3-2" engineering programs. Even without knowing anything about the quality of the math department at Whitman College or at Occidental College, you may draw some inferences from the fact that both these institutions have "3-2" programs with Cal Tech.

Colleges with special programs often explain those programs in their brochures. Kalamazoo College, for example, has a special "career development internship" program which is an integral part of its education. In the last quarter of the sophomore year a student goes off to work, on a job related to his or her field of study, and then returns to college for the summer quarter to make up the academic work. This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for some students it can be very valuable, not only as a source of money, but also as a preview of a particular career and an opportunity to mature on their own, away from both home and college, for a brief time in a selected situation. The brochure is valuable, whether its contents lead you to want to explore further or simply enables you to know that this college should be crossed off your list.

Brochures are especially important in the case of small liberal arts colleges, some of whom are superb but virtually unknown. Others are worthless and unknown, so that sorting them out will take some detective work.

Some of the numbers in brochures can be tricky. Student-faculty ratios from large universities may not mean the same thing as student-faculty ratios from small colleges. At a university with hundreds of graduate teaching assistants, many part-time junior faculty, and many senior faculty with research grants that reduce the number of courses they teach, much depends on how they choose to define and count "faculty." In more than a decade on the faculty of U.C.L.A., I actually taught courses only about 5 years, spent nearly 4 years living in Palo Alto (400 miles away), and more than 2 years living on the east coast-all the while being counted as part of the faculty of U.C.L.A. This is not that unusual at a large research university, where senior faculty are often on leave for extended periods of time. Moreover, even when they are on campus, many senior faculty at such institutions spend most of their time with graduate students.

Student-faculty ratios may be useful if you don't take them too literally, and if you compare liberal arts colleges with one another rather than with large universities. For large universities, you may be better off computing your own student-faculty ratio with a pocket calculator, dividing the full-time students by the full-time faculty. For all institutions, this ratio gives only a rough idea of average class size. If one university has a 30-to-1 ratio and another has a 15-to-1 ratio, then the first probably has bigger classes. But if one university has a 20-to-1 ratio and another has 18-to-1, it may simply mean that they are defining "faculty" differently, or counting full-time and part-time students or faculty differently.

There are other statistical traps to avoid when trying to determine whether you will be lost in a mob or receive individual attention in class. If, at 10 o'clock on a Monday morning, there are a thousand students in class, with half of them in a huge lecture hall holding 500 students, then half the students have mass, impersonal education. The other half may be scattered in 20 other classes, getting more individual attention. If this pattern is typical throughout the week, then the human reality is that half the time you are likely to be getting mass education at that college. What its brochure will say, however, is that the average class size is less than 25. It will be correct-but misleading. Merely by changing the focus from the student's experience as the unit of observation to the classroom as the unit of observation, the brochure has changed the meaning and relevance of its statistics.

Harvard's brochure shows that it has more than 500 courses with 20 or fewer students, and less than 70 courses with 100 or more students. The temptation is to say that there are more Harvard students taking small classes-and the brochure's presentation leads you in that direction-but you cannot simply compare the number of small classes with the number of large classes. By definition, there are more people in each large class, so that an unweighted average would be invalid and misleading. Judging by the distribution of class sizes, there are probably at least as many Harvard students taking classes with 100 or more students as are taking classes with 20 or less. (To illustrate the mathematical principle involved with a deliberately extravagant example, if there were a million students in one college, with 900,000 of them enrolled in one course and the other 100,000 in one-person tutorials, then the average class size would be 10, even though 90 percent of the students were in a class larger than the population of San Francisco.) There is a fundamental difference between making the student the focus and making the classroom the focus.


College catalogues are usually less flashy and more factual than brochures. They are also usually a little harder to obtain, but they can be gotten if you are persistent. Many schools will send the brochure if you write and ask for a catalogue. In this case, it would be advisable to phone the admissions office and explain that you specifically want the catalogue. Some colleges, such as Harvard, Chicago, and U.C.L.A., charge you for the catalogue, but $5.00 usually covers it, so that is not a major problem. For a university with many divisions, it would be necessary to specify whether the catalogue you wanted was for the undergraduate liberal arts college, the college of engineering, or whatever other division you were interested in. Because the catalogue has more facts and less fluff than the brochure, it is something to turn to after you have already narrowed down your choices to perhaps 5 or 10 schools and plan to look at each in depth. The main body of most catalogues consists of a listing of courses, each with a description of what is covered. It is seldom worthwhile to read very many of these course descriptions but sometimes a knowledgeable person can tell whether the collection of offerings in a given department makes sense. A mathematician looking at a list of courses in a math department, or a chemist looking at the courses in a chemistry department, can tell if what is offered is adequate or inadequate as a foundation in that field. In some colleges, taking everything that is offered in a given department will still not be enough, even if the courses are all well taught and you master all the material in them.

If you don't know any chemist or mathematician, your high-school chemistry or mathematics teacher may be willing to look at some catalogue listings in chemistry or math for you. To keep your request reasonable, you should not inundate your teacher with catalogues but seek his or her opinion only after you have narrowed your college choices down to the final few. You may also mention that you don't expect the teacher to know what the actual quality of the courses is, but only to tell you if some set of department offerings is inadequate to cover the field properly. In other words, you are not asking for a definitive evaluation but only for help in weeding out something that should not be considered any further. However, it may turn out in some cases that the teacher does have some idea of the quality of a particular department. If so, that is a windfall gain.

Another very important piece of information in most college catalogues concerns the academic background of the faculty. Again, this is something to look up only after you have reduced your list of colleges to the final few. Most catalogues list the faculty, their degrees, and their academic rank, usually toward the back. Sometimes, merely going through the list and underlining the universities from which they received their Ph.D.'s will show differences that provide important clues when choosing a college.

Bennington College, which has the distinction of being the most expensive in the country, is notable for the relatively low percentage of Ph.D.'s among its faculty. Partly this is because such a high proportion of the Bennington faculty specializes in areas such as painting, ceramics, music, and dance, in which Ph.D.'s are not the relevant training. Among those Bennington professors with Ph.D.'s, some are from top-ranked universities, such as Harvard, Chicago, and Berkeley. Still, even in traditional subjects such as literature, history, and mathematics, there are more faculty without doctorates than you would expect from a college with such expensive tuition. Although Bennington faculty list their publications in the catalogue (very unusual), publications in respected scholarly journals are conspicuous by their absence. No one expects professors at a liberal arts college to match the volume of scholarly publications found among professors at a research university. But the quality of what is published by professors at a top-ranked liberal arts college is often good enough to be published in the leading professional journals in their fields. It is worth noting that this does not seem to be true for most Bennington faculty. Bennington has long been known for marching to its own drummer, and this unusual assortment of faculty is in keeping with that pattern. The question here is not whether this is good or bad, but whether it suits what you are looking for. Whether it is or not, a careful reading of the faculty's credentials gives you some important clues-not only at Bennington, but in general.

Sometimes a casual look through the faculty listings will be enough to turn up significant differences in the educational backgrounds of professors at different colleges. Swarthmore College professors, for example, tend to have Ph.D.'s overwhelmingly from the very top-ranked universities, while those at Whittier College have Ph.D.'s from a more mixed assortment of top-tier and second-tier universities-very good on the whole, but not a match for Swarthmore. When comparing any colleges in this respect, the educational backgrounds of professors of music, art, physical education, and the like should not be included in comparisons with professors in academic fields where the Ph.D. is the norm.

Much controversy has swirled around the Ph.D. degree-whether it is crucial, whether it matters where it came from, and many other issues. Like test scores, its significance can be readily contested in individual cases. There have been a few leading scholars with no Ph.D., or with Ph.D.'s from some institution of secondary rank. But it is rare. If you look at any list of professors who have reached special prominence in their fields-Presidents of the American Economic Association, for example-you will find that virtually all received their post-graduate education at one of a relatively small number of highly-rated universities. By the time anyone reaches such a level of eminence, most people have long ago forgotten where their Ph.D.'s came from, so that it is their achievements which are being recognized by their professional colleagues. That only makes this "coincidence" all the more striking.

No one should imagine that a college where 90 percent of the faculty have Ph.D.'s is automatically superior to a college where 85 percent of the faculty have Ph.D.'s, or that every professor with a Ph.D. from Ohio State is less qualified than every professor with a Ph.D. from Yale. Everyone knows that a second-baseman on a team that won the World Series isn't necessarily better than all other second-basemen, and similar reasoning applies here to individual professors. But you are not choosing individual professors until you have already chosen a college-and the college has chosen you. Right now, you are choosing a team-a faculty-and the point here is that a World Championship team is usually better than a team that didn't make the play- offs.

Choosing a college is a question of making some general assessments and seeing if they add up to a decisive difference. Often they won't, but where they do, it can be very important. Pettifogging arguments should not be allowed to stand in the way of making general assessments where the differences are large. It may not matter that 90 percent of college A's faculty has Ph.D.'s compared to 85 percent of college B's faculty, but if only 50 percent of college C's faculty have Ph.D.'s, then a real question arises. There may be a good answer to that question-but there had better be.

If you are particularly interested in the professors who teach some special field that you plan to major in, it might be well worth finding out how the departments from which they received their Ph.D.'s are ranked by those in that profession. The National Academy of Sciences publishes such rankings, and they do not always conform to the general prestige of the universities in which the departments are located. For example, most people would probably rank Cornell or Yale over the University of California at Davis, but U.C. Davis is ranked number one in the country in botany by those in that field (with Cornell 5th and Yale 7th), so a professor of botany with a Ph.D. from Davis is the top of the line as far as his professional training is concerned. Similarly, the University of Houston is ranked above Princeton in chemical engineering.

Here we are now doing something that we avoided doing before: ranking institutions by their academic quality. But we are doing so only in a limited sense-after reaching the point where you have already determined the range of your own academic capabilities, the kind of institutional atmosphere you are seeking, and many other personal considerations. Within that range of desired characteristics, it is obviously better being taught by better- qualified professors.

Many feel that it is not the professor's own educational background or scholarly achievements that matter most, but how good he or she is in the classroom. However, as we saw in Chapter 3, there are important aspects of teaching that cannot be determined by observation in the classroom. Research at Harvard showed that how much was actually learned by students in introductory economics there had no correlation with how high the students rated their teacher-but was correlated with their teacher's grades in graduate school. My own experience likewise suggests that, in general, it is the quality and capability of the professor's mind-more than anything else- that determines how much the students learn, not whether they enjoy the process or are impressed by him or her. I encountered an extreme example of this while teaching at Howard University in Washington. In an upper-level economics course called "intermediate price theory," I found some of my Howard students following the work very intelligently while a surprising number of others obviously didn't have a clue as to what I was talking about. During informal discussions with individual students in my office, I would casually ask who had taught them introductory economics. Some mentioned Professor A, usually with warm comments on what a good teacher he was. These were almost invariably students who were totally lost in intermediate price theory and failing the course. Professor A had simply never given them the essential foundation for further study of economics. How could the students possibly have known this while enjoying whatever it was that he did teach?

Conversely, there were other students in the course who had been taught introductory economics by Professor Z, a no-nonsense man with an accent that some found hard to understand. Students complained, often bitterly, about him as a teacher. But everyone who had a grade of B or above at that point in intermediate price theory had been taught introductory economics by Professor Z. Given what they had learned in his course, they had no trouble picking up the story and continuing on in mine, without missing a beat. One professor had impressed them; the other had taught them. Variations on this episode have occurred at other colleges and universities where I have taught. At Douglass College, the women's college at Rutgers University, I was hired to fill a vacancy caused by a retiring professor who was so revered by some students that I made it a point never to say anything to suggest that I was replacing him. But I soon discovered that students who had studied economics under him were usually not only lacking in preparation for upper-level work, but often had a complete misconception of what economics was all about. I discouraged his former students from taking my courses until after they had taken an economic theory course taught by one of my colleagues-even though I admitted other students who had had no economics at all. It was easier to give special help to students who didn't know anything about the subject than to try to unscramble somebody who had been confused by my highly-regarded predecessor. In short, while irresponsibility, disorganization, and sheer propaganda by a professor may be detected by students in the classroom, the positive things-what makes it all meaningful and worthwhile-cannot be assessed for a college faculty in general without some external clues as to their educational preparation and capabilities, as judged by those professionally qualified to judge.


Colleges have to be weeded out financially, as well as academically, socially, and in other ways. Some students may see the big question as whether they can afford to go to college at all, not where. Certainly that was the way the problem once presented itself to me, and to many others of my generation. Today, that is much less of a problem because so much more financial aid is available. Whether you can go, from a financial point of view, is often more of a question of living expenses rather than tuition. It is also a question of whether you or your family can afford to have you pass up a full-time paycheck in order to study. No one can answer this last question for you, especially if you have other people dependent on you. But if you are single and free of dependents, and don't mind postponing full-time paychecks, the opportunities are large. Horrendous tuitions are often reported in the media. Many colleges charge more than $10,000 a year, not counting room and board. However, those tuitions are often like list prices on cars or other products that are almost always sold at a discount. In the academic world, that discount is called "financial aid."

In general, the more expensive the tuition, the fewer the students who pay it in full, or at all. This is true not only at the rich-and-famous institutions like Harvard, Chicago, or Stanford, but much more broadly. Approximately 70 percent of the students at Birmingham-Southern College receive some form of financial aid, whether as an outright grant or as a loan, a campus job, or (more likely) some combination. The same is true at the University of Puget Sound, where the average financial aid is about the same as at Harvard. At Tulane University, the average financial aid is even greater than at Harvard.

Financial aid may of course go beyond tuition to cover all or part of your living expenses. Nor do you need to be from a low-income family to qualify, though in general the likelihood of receiving larger awards tends to be greater for students from moderate to low-income families. Still, it is not at all uncommon for students whose families earn $50,000 or more to receive some financial aid. Again, this practice is not confined to rich Ivy League schools. At Knox College, for example, the great majority of those students from families making over $50,000 a year who applied for financial aid received it. The average amount of the aid was not as large as for those from families with lower incomes, but still it ranged up to several thousand dollars a year. Moreover, all of those students from families earning less than $42,000 a year who applied for financial aid received it, some in amounts exceeding tuition by enough to cover a substantial part of living expenses.

A similar pattern can be found at Carleton College, among others. In the academic year 1985-86, for example, there were 51 freshmen whose family incomes were $60,000 and over who nevertheless "demonstrated need" by the college's criteria and were awarded financial aid averaging more than $4,000 per year. The same was true for all in lower income brackets, with the amount of the aid increasing until it exceeded $10,000 per year for students whose annual family income was below $12,000. None of these institutions is unique. Their statistics are cited simply to illustrate a more widespread pattern.

Just as there are nationwide organizations for administering college entrance tests and forwarding the results to individual institutions, so there are nationwide organizations to assess your financial aid needs and forward those results to individual colleges. There is a standard Financial Aid Form to be filled out and forwarded to the College Scholarship Service in Princeton or a Family Financial Statement to be filed with the American College Testing Program in Iowa City. These should be available in your high school but, if not, you can write to get them from either of these organizations. Their addresses are:

Educational Testing Service
College Scholarship Service
CN 6300
Princeton, New Jersey 08541
American College Testing Program
Family Financial Statement
P.O. Box 1002
Iowa City, Iowa 52243

Applying for financial aid involves more than filling out another set of forms. It also involves another set of application deadlines-often earlier than the deadline for admissions applications. If financial aid is essential for you to go to college, the earlier financial aid deadline is the one that counts. It might be an especially bitter disappointment to be admitted to the college of your choice and then not be able to go because you didn't complete the financial aid forms in time.

Despite the generous financial aid available at many colleges, not everyone can gain admission to these colleges. If you have gone through high school with a C average and your verbal and math S.A.T.'s are each in the 400's, then you cannot assume that you will be admitted to places like Knox College or Birmingham-Southern, much less to big-name colleges and universities, where admissions applications exceed the number of available places by several times over. Nevertheless, most states have a sufficiently wide range of state colleges, state universities, and community colleges that you should be able to find a niche somewhere. If you are from New Hampshire and can't get into the University of New Hampshire, then you may be able to get into Keene State College. If you are from Texas and can't get admitted to the Austin campus of the University of Texas, your chances may be better at the El Paso campus. In California, there is an even wider spectrum of state institutions, headed by Berkeley and U.C.L.A. in terms of prestige (and by U.C. San Diego in terms of your chances of continuing on to the doctorate).

Financial aid may not be as generous in all parts of the academic pecking order, but it is available in most, through a wide variety of state and federal programs too numerous to list. High school counselors or college admission officers should be able to direct you to whatever financial aid programs are best suited to your situation. But, whatever others may invest in your education, the largest investment will still be your own. Four years of passing up full-time paychecks adds up to a lot of money-far more than any loans you are likely to get. Throw in the element of chance-that you may not graduate, after all, or may not find a well-paying career if you do-and the prospect may require a lot of sober thought, especially if your academic performance and academic interest are marginal. For those who are determined, such considerations will not stop them-and may spur them on to work harder, to make sure their investment (or gamble) pays off.

Co-operative work-study programs may be of special interest to those with financial concerns, or those who are anxious to sample some profession while in college, before deciding whether to make it their life's work. Kalamazoo College's program, mentioned earlier, is only one of many. Co-op programs are found at all academic quality levels, in all geographic regions, and from huge universities to small liberal arts colleges and at a number of engineering schools.

Sometimes these work-study programs are available only in particular fields (engineering at Arizona State University or the University of Florida, chemistry at Butler University). Sometimes they cover a variety of fields, as they do at Ohio State or the University of Virginia. Finally, there are schools like Kalamazoo, Northeastern, and Drexel, where the whole academic program is built around co-operative work-study programs. Whether at specialized co-op institutions or at other colleges, universities, or engineering schools, work-study programs may delay graduation, perhaps by a year-but it need not. It does not at Kalamazoo, for example. This will have to be checked out at each institution.

One of the trade-offs involved in work-study programs is the frequent disruption of collegiate life and perhaps the loss of summer vacations. When one semester is spent on campus and the next working hundreds of miles away, continuity of friendships with classmates will be harder to maintain. Those who treasure a collegiate experience of fraternities, football games, and the like, will also find that the demands of co-operative work-study put a real damper on such things. In short, it is not for everybody. But that is true of many worthwhile things.

No discussion of finances should leave out those rare institutions with no tuition at all. Aside from military service academies like West Point and Annapolis, there is Berea College in Kentucky, where everyone works at least 10 hours a week-and where you can be rejected for admission if your family income is too high. It also has a policy of taking most of its students from the Appalachian region. A very small, elite and avant-garde two-year college in California called Deep Springs likewise has no tuition and has student work requirements.

The final piece of financial weeding-out may come when you are accepted at more than one college and have to decide not only how one institution compares to another but also how one financial aid package compares to another. That happy problem will be left for the last chapter.

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